What happens when you bring together dozens of researchers from fields as diverse as engineering, medicine, physics, chemistry, genomics, nanotechnology and biology and set them to work studying human health and disease?
You get the Global Enterprise for Micro-Mechanics and Molecular Medicine (GEM4), an interdisciplinary, international collaboration that in its first year has already made significant headway into understanding malaria and other infectious diseases.
"We want to take on broad problems that are at the intersection of disciplines where people don't cross the boundaries that easily," says Subra Suresh, GEM4 director and Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
GEM4, which launched last October, includes participants from a number of institutions including the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France; Chulabhorn Research Institute in Thailand; the National University of Singapore; Caltech; Harvard; Johns Hopkins University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The collaboration is set up as a "virtual center" that encourages sharing expertise, data and research facilities, Suresh said. Each university brings its own strengths -- for example, MIT's focus on technology and the Institut Pasteur's long history of studying infectious disease.
One of the center's first major activities is this month's GEM4 summer school, "Cell and Molecular Mechanics in BioMedicine," hosted by MIT. The session will be repeated each year with a different focus. This year's theme is infectious disease, to be followed by cancer in 2007 and cardiovascular disease in 2008, Suresh said. Next year's summer school will be held in Singapore in conjunction with the GEM4 Conference on Cancer.
For two weeks, more than 70 researchers from around the world have gathered for a session designed not only to teach students new skills but to stimulate collaboration among the professors, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students in attendance. Suresh and Professor Roger Kamm of mechanical and biological engineering are co-chairs for this year's summer session.
The summer school also includes laboratory sessions. More than 22 instructors from many participating institutions, and others from Columbia University and the New York Blood Center, are teaching in the summer school. Nearly 10 MIT faculty members from more than six departments and a large number of MIT graduate students and post-doctoral fellows have participated in classroom and laboratory teaching. The students and lecturers in the summer school represent a good cross section of engineering and physical sciences on the one hand, and life sciences and medicine on the other.
Only a few days into this summer session, Suresh said it was already apparent that the seeds of future collaboration were being planted. Groups of researchers with similar interests have formed to generate research ideas, and "it looks like some of them are going to continue beyond this course," he said.
"It's networking, bringing people together in a way that's unique," Suresh said. The summer school is also partly supported by the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office, the Office of Naval Research, the Lord Foundation of Massachusetts, and several participating institutions.
The GEM4 summer school runs through Friday, Aug. 18. For more information about GEM4, visit www.gem4.org.